By Eugene R. Schlesinger 

Last month my wife and I celebrated (belatedly) our 20th anniversary with a trip to Glacier National Park. The occasion was made that much more auspicious by the absence of our children, who took their first solo flight across the country to spend a couple weeks with family on the East Coast, freeing up Mom and Dad to really connect with each other as people and not just parents.

Glacier had long been on our list of places we wanted to see, and it did not disappoint. Water abounded (to the delight of this couple, who live in a parched land at consistent risk for wildfires). And the water was of such a translucent, super-saturated character! Wildlife was plentiful: bears (both grizzly and black), mountain goats, marmots, and deer (we were frustrated in our desire to see moose). The Going-to-the-Sun Road scratched this film nerd’s itch of entering into the opening sequence of Kubrick’s The Shining. And we hiked.

And hiked.

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And hiked.

I don’t think we ever actually reached our physical limits, but we came about as close as I care to. Every day our Apple watches informed us that we’d set a new record. We were exhausted, content, and full of life. Perfect vacation. No notes.

I’ve reflected on one hike in particular many times both on that trip and since our return. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about it as the bishops of the Anglican Communion gather for the Lambeth Conference, and all the more so as the days leading up to the conference got contentious (is it even a gathering of Anglicans if it’s not contentious?), particularly surrounding the proposed Call for Human Dignity.

What follows is not a commentary on Lambeth, nor on what I think the bishops should or shouldn’t do. Nor is it a parable or allegory of Lambeth or of synodality, or of our life as a communion of churches more generally. I’ll forego making any direct connection to any of these, but they are in my mind as I write, and I believe that my reflections can illuminate how we might think about how we can walk together, even, at times, at a distance.

The hike up to Apgar Lookout was the most intense I’d ever done. It’s about 3.4 miles to the summit, with an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet, most of it over the last mile. All that to say it’s steep, and it feels all the steeper when undertaken in the early afternoon, because there’s basically no shade, and the sun was out in force.

Anyone who’s done much hiking probably knows something about the camaraderie of the trail. At various points one’s hike intersects with others’. Sometimes it’s only a quick smile, nod, or greeting as you pass in opposite directions. Sometimes a bit of small talk as you stop in the same place to take in a view, catch your breath, or hydrate. Generally, the folks hiking in national parks, especially on the more challenging trails, are there on purpose, and so there’s a certain amount of goodwill borne from a shared interest and goal in these interactions.

This camaraderie was amplified on this particular trail, with folks on the descent cheering us on as we labored on the ascent, puffing, wheezing, one of us perhaps cursing soto voce. We all knew this was a hard road we were sharing, and we all genuinely wanted each other to succeed.

Two sets of interactions especially stand out.

An older woman, probably in her 70s, greeted us as we neared the summit and as she made her way down. We paused and chatted for a couple of minutes. She estimated we’d arrive at the top in another ten minutes, observed how much it had changed since her last trip to the park 20 years ago, and advised us that we’d be able to see into Banff when we reached our goal.

We were galvanized by this interaction. First, because this woman — still so active, still out seeing the world — embodied one of our goals. But also, surely if this kind, encouraging septuagenarian can hold out on this trail, a couple of healthy 39-year-olds could!

Along the way, we also passed a few times, and were passed by, a younger couple, perhaps in their late 20s. We exchanged laments about the difficulty of the terrain, expressed our hopes that the view at the top would actually be worth it, and, when we finally reached the top, opined that it was, indeed worth it, and expressed our awe at the tenacity of that encouraging older woman.

The way down was considerably easier than the climb, and we took on the role of descending encouragers with gusto. Near the end of the trail, perhaps a half mile to the parking lot, we came upon the older woman from before. She was paused with her hands on her knees and her head down. We slowed to check in on her, and decided, wordlessly, to proceed at her pace for the duration, just to be sure she was okay. She’d used up her water, and so we replenished her bottle from an extra one I was carrying, and chatted with her along the way. There’s surely a generational lesson there somewhere. She was there for us on the way up; we were there for her on the way down.

In the parking lot we reconvened with the younger couple, who offered us warm beers from their car (we declined, mostly interested in water at that point). We spent about 15 minutes talking about our lives, what had brought us to the park, and what our plans were for the rest of our time. Their quasi-Bohemian approach to just taking off in their car and heading west for as long as their cash reserves lasted sounded like a really fun way to spend one’s younger years, but not at all like something we’d want to do. We wished each other well on the remainder of our vacations and went our separate ways back to our own lives.

On that trail, we were all walking together, often at a distance. While we were able to encourage each other in various ways, and in one case offer help that was probably necessary, none of us could take the hike for the other. We each had to walk the way ourselves. But our experience of the hike was fuller and richer for these interactions, for our togetherness, even at a distance.

The only thing uniting us was a common path, leading to a common goal, but we’d have been impoverished, perhaps even endangered, without one another.

The Anglican Communion, similarly, is composed of autonomous churches, each on their own journeys, but also each bound to the other by our common path leading to a common goal — the way of the cross, leading to the glory of the resurrection and life everlasting in God’s perfected reign. None of us can undertake the journey for the others. Each of us must do our best to be faithful to what has been entrusted to us, the saving message of Christ crucified and risen, and the new life in the Holy Spirit.

We’re out of step with each other in various and obvious ways. There’s no need to rehearse them here. And some of our disagreements are too important to default to a posture of “agree to disagree.” Yet, however important these areas of disagreement are, none of us dare cede our responsibility to anyone else (as if we could). All must walk the path themselves. None of us dare wrest responsibility from others either (as if we could). All must walk the path themselves.

As we do so, though, we must beware walking apart. We still stand to learn much from each other as we walk together, even at a distance. The wider the diversity of witness to it, the more our insight into the mystery of Christ stands to be enriched. None of us can substitute our experience of God’s grace in Christ and the Holy Spirit for another’s, but if we myopically refuse to have our horizons broadened, even by those we believe to be grievously wrong, our journeys will be impoverished, and perhaps endangered.

None of this tells us how to walk together, but walk together we must. Perhaps it’s only in the walking that we discover the way.

About The Author

Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The author of Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Fortress Academic, 2019) and Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017), and the editor of Covenant, he understands his vocation to be an Episcopalian who does Catholic theology.

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Morgan Bruns
3 months ago

Thank you. I think this is a really helpful analogy. One problem I struggle with is how to walk together when we fail to apprehend any significant common ground. Are we walking on separate trails toward the same destination? Or, better yet, maybe we’re on the same trail but just refuse to admit it. I’d like to think so. But too often it’s too easy to assume that our fellow hikers are headed to different destinations altogether. It seems much more challenging to walk together in this climate of mistrust. Peter walking on water towards Jesus comes to mind. We… Read more »